The 1927 Solvay Conference for Physics and Chemistry: Marie Curie (bottom, third from left), Einstein, and many moreI Harsten

There has been a growing effort in the 21st century to actively encourage women to pursue careers in science and engineering. Though accounting for just under half the US working population, women comprise only a quarter of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industry, despite numerous campaigns to raise this figure. In the UK the same statistic was recorded at just over an embarrassingly low 10 per cent.

Is there a fundamental reason explaining this huge disparity in the number of women in STEM? The answer may partly lie in differences of neurological make-up between men and women, a hotly contested field among biologists.

Neurologists and psychologists researching the brains of men and women have discovered that variations in structure do exist. Contemporarily, a key understanding of scientists is the consequences of differences in emotions and empathy, and how they vary between the sexes based on the contrasting physical nature of the brain.

Differences start during foetus development, as sex hormones play their part from an early stage. Studies have found clear differences in brain structure between male and female babies within six months of development in the womb. One example of sex-differences is evident with the corpus callosum. This bridge of nerve tissue connecting the two hemispheres of the brain is often more substantial in females. The supposed thicker connection means both hemispheres can better communicate in the female brain during certain activities, including language processing; an experiment quantifying blood flow showed males only used their left hemisphere, whereas females utilised both left and right.

Psychological studies have also demonstrated that boys mature on average four years earlier with regards to geometry and logic problems, whilst girls mature six years earlier with language and fine motor skills. Perhaps these differences at an early stage shape a dislike towards certain professions in later adult life. Girls may find studying subjects associated with the STEM industry more difficult in early education, resulting in them choosing to practise their skills in other areas.

As we continue to develop, the existence of neurological differences mean women are likely to have the ability to better empathise and communicate than their male counterparts. Women are often associated as more social beings, increasing the likelihood of career paths with more direct interaction with people's lives and society itself. These careers also require the ability to accurately judge emotions through facial expressions, a skill at which women, on average, are more adept. Altogether, the evidence seems to suggest that there is a positive biological bias for women to choose jobs entailing more communication and cooperation such as law and psychiatry (where women make up 80 per cent of the profession).

The field is widely contested: despite tangible differences in brain composition, some scientists believe that the consequences of such differences will not lead to a substantial variation in life choices. The differences are argued to have been a distant evolutionary advantage, but in a changing world they may now simply be residual traits that no longer affect our motives and abilities.

The problem may start very early on, but it may not have a biological cause. The 'stereotype threat' is a substantial problem, and could be a major cause of the disparity.

An example in primary school is the idea that girls are simply not good at maths. Moreover, regardless of whether there is any truth in the statement, girls often feel undue pressure to perform at a higher standard, causing many to develop anxiety. This could lead to worse results, enforcing the stereotyping and creating a vicious cycle. Studies have clearly shown that when people are educated about the stereotype threat their performance standard increases. Evidently, these stereotypes are something that should be addressed early on in school, so that they don't have a detrimental effect on what children, both male and female, choose to do. 

Education and school life play a major role in determining whether women end up working in STEM. So it seems both the biological differences, and existence of stereotypes play a part in determining the gender ratios in certain industries. But does the fact these imbalances already exist mean progress will be extremely slow, or even that equality will never occur due to the societal handicaps that existed in the past?

It is evident that more research needs to be done into the differences in brain structure to further elucidate the reasons for which certain choices are made. The differences that have been discovered are small and heavily influenced by the environment. As a result, any binary conclusions that are forged at this stage are frankly irresponsible. However, while the science is still young, efforts must be made in schools and the workplace both to combat the stereotype threat and ensure a safe and comfortable working environment for women.

 

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